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the scientist


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									                                      The Scientist as Poet
                                         Arthur Winfree, EP ’65

                                The Cornell Engineer, November 1964

   “All is flux,” insisted the philosopher Heracli-           a coherent, esthetically simple description of our
tus, and never was this truer than today. The                experience. Both are attempting new and unheard
alacrity with which the modern world revolution-             of exploits in perception, both are exploring that
izes itself often bewilders even those resilient souls       terra incognita of mind where anything may be
who have lived all their lives in a culture which            discovered by the man who can open his eyes wide
“changes shapes with Proteus for advantage.”                 enough to see it.
   Swept up in the midst of change, our society                 It is clear that this business of having wide-open
is continually threatened by unprecedented de-               eyes is no mean trick. It is the sine qua non of
mands, many of which can only be met by a strong             innovation, the ‘open sesame’ of creative break-
and adaptable science. Innovation becomes syn-               through in science as in anything else. . . but most
onymous with survival in such matters as, e.g.,              spectacularly in science, where logical machinery
acquiring controlled thermonuclear power sources,            of unmatched power and precision lies in readiness
extracting minerals and clean water from the sea,            to develop each insight to the fullest. That this
distributing and absorbing mountains of informa-             business is the chief accomplishment of the poet
tion, maintaining superior defense capability, and           and his most highly developed skill is compelling
stemming the advance of hunger.                              motivation for the scientist to appreciate his mode
   Today a strong culture depends on a strong sci-           of perception. Observance of the ethic of “open-
ence; and strong science turns senile without in-            mindedness” is only a beginning, for without “a
novation. But innovation is a matter of perceiving           touch of the poet” we have nothing but techni-
what others have never seen before, though it be             cians.
under their noses. It is not a matter of disciplined   What do you see when you look at the moon in
reasoning, and it is not taught as a course in the the sky? Everyone before him saw just what ev-
universities.                                        eryone else saw–the moon–but Newton saw Uni-
   Among those uncommon individuals who retain versal Gravitation. Newton’s imagination was
far into maturity a childlike freshness of vision, not deterred by the accepted “impossibility” of
we have long been familiar with the poet and the force-at-a-distance. And how did Kekul´, the fa-
idiot. To this company I think we may properly       ther of structural organic chemistry, penetrate the
add the creative scientist.                          enigma of carbon’s versatility? Not only by long
   The poet and the scientist are both, in essence,  laboratory hours; his inspiration was the imme-
striving to really see the world, not only in its diate effect of dreaming by the fireside, of letting
culturally and verbally imposed aspects, but in his mind wander in fanciful paths of free associa-
its immediacy and its inexhaustible wonderment. tion. Was Planck’s revolutionary creation of “h”
The poet is mainly concerned with the impact of an inevitable consequence of classical concepts?
the world on the spirit, and he spends his time Certainly not. His was a triumph of imaginative
trying to lure subtle feelings out into the open freedom, and it was only by his fantasy of the most
and express them clearly, in a way that will bring unconventional models that he introduced some-
them forth again. The scientist, much the same, thing new into our understanding of Nature.
is trying to ferret out and clearly express relations These are not instances of logical deduction
between the superficially disconnected aspects of any more than the insights of the great mathe-
the world. Like the poet, he is only satisfied with maticians were first obtained as inescapable con-

sequences of the existence of zero and one. Even            for the scientist is not confined to the languages of
disregarding the very important psychological rea-          tradition alone. In mathematics we find a tool of
sons for this superficially ex nihilo feature of the         a mode modern cast, a language capable of han-
creative act, its inevitability can be read from the        dling concepts and similarities utterly untouchable
very structure of reason itself. Well though not            in English. When a scientist conceives of a new re-
widely known is the result of Kurt G¨del’s analy-           lation between ideas, he has only planted the seed
sis of the two thousand year old axiomatic method:          of a greater idea that will blossom completely in
that our understanding of the world will never be           the “language of science.” For a spectacular ex-
put on a rigorously deductive basis simply because          ample of such flowering, just recall the explosive
this would require innumerable axioms. Where,               ramification of Schoedinger’s simple concept of the
then, are we to get the new principles needed to            Ψ-wave:
expand our appreciation of Reality? We get them                                   2        ∂
                                                                                    +E ∝ .
by induction, imagination, and poetic insight.                                             ∂t
                                                               Mathematics is not only a powerful precision in-
   Insofar as the poet has method in his mad-               strument, however. As a language, it shares the
ness and insofar as the scientist is innovator, their       metaphoric potential of other languages, but is
modes of perception share a few distinctive fea-            capable of greater abstraction in its “poetic res-
tures that cannot fail to be fruitful if consciously        onances.” Writing e−αt , that scientist resembles
emphasized.                                                 the poet, who is simultaneously reminded of ther-
   Examining the commonplace from a strange                 mal relaxation, his bank account, a ringing bell,
viewpoint is a valuable eye-opener whether prac-            atmospheric pressure, the world population, and a
ticed by the poet who stands on his head better             snail shell. But the man who is intimate with the
to see the beauty of a sunset, or by the scientist          language of group theory, dimensional analysis, or
trying to visualize a crystal lattice from the elec-        the theory of rings has left the poet far behind.
tron’s point of view. The object in either case is to       If English is fertile of meaning when playfully ex-
divest a phenomenon of its obscuring incrustation           ploited, consider the depth of significance accessi-
of familiarity.                                             ble to the poet-scientist who listens for resonances
   Bur more effective in the poet’s arsenal is his           in Hausdorff-space!
dexterity with metaphor. It is almost a clich´ to-
day that language is dead and stiffened poetry–                 While such fruitful combination of poetic and
a mosaic of forgotten metaphors. And in this it             scientific outlooks in a single individual was fortu-
is an accurate reflection of the mind’s organiza-            itous in the past, today it urgently needs to be cul-
tion when searching for meaning. Each concept               tivated. Failure to see what does not conform to
and each percept is an association of partly re-            the culturally imposed Weltanschauung, what is
lated memories all evoked together by the saying            not explained by the currently popular model, can
of a word. To the poetic undertone of intelligence          only be called tragic in a time when time-honored
the sea is not only salt spray: its resonances excite       disciplines are dissolving and science is ripe for re-
time, power, the sandcastles and sunshine of child-         construction. But in the midst of such flux the
hood, eternity, the unknown, and vacation cruises.          excitement of innovation should be no stranger to
                                                            the explorer who makes it a habit:
   The poet makes good use of his language, less
to convey precise information than to guide the                 “To see the world in a grain of sand, and
thoughts and feelings in search of new syntheses of             a heaven in a wild flower.”
meaning. It is from such uninhibited explorations
of the poetic resonances of our concepts that the
most valuable and surprising innovations are often            Art Winfree is in his ninth term of Engineering
                                                            Physics and will graduate in February, 1965, planning
                                                            to continue studies in September toward a Ph.D. in
   For the scientist this observation has a special         some mixture of biophysics and cybernetics.
and exciting significance not accessible to others,


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